Sexual Assault and Anxieties of Gender: The Epic Ṛṣis and their Audiences Confront the Problematics of Gender Difference and Human Sexuality

Location: OCHS YouTube Channel
Speaker: Professor Robert P Goldman
Date: October 24, 2021
Time: 3.00-4.00

Rethinking Gender in Hinduism 

This series seeks to explore the complexities of the category of ‘gender’ in Hinduism, focusing on expanding past heteronormative conceptions of Hindu deities as shown in scriptures and iconographical contexts. The main goal of the project is to open the academic field of Gender Studies in Hinduism to a greater audience and wider opportunities. The project output is to develop a series that can resonate with, and connect to, other fields of study as well, such as gender studies, critical race theory, decolonial social anthropology, and so on. The project consists of recorded lectures that are made easily available through the OCHS webpage and YouTube.

Sexual Assault and Anxieties of Gender: The Epic Ṛṣis and their Audiences Confront the Problematics of Gender Difference and Human Sexuality

It is, of course, apparent and widely understood that the narratives of the great ancient Indian epic poems, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, are centered around episodes of sexual assault upon their respective heroines, Sītā and Draupadī, respectively. Less well known and commented upon, however, is the way both of the traditional authors of the work, the ṛṣis Vālmīki and Vyāsa, are dedicated to harping on this theme of sexual violence by overdetermining it with episodes of repeated physical and verbal assaults against the same figures as well as multiple assaults against a striking number of less central female characters. At the same time, the poets are at pains to create back stories, as it were that serve to provide justifications and explanations for the sexually anomalous situations in which their narratives place their central female characters. Moreover, running through both poems is a series of episodes that call into question the seeming fluidity and indeed the very concept of gender, as the poets dwell upon a specific anxiety of retributive gender transformation, almost universally, of men into women or fictive women.

In this presentation I will argue that, through these representations of gender and sexuality, the Sanskrit epics both register deeply rooted attitudes about these critical issues and serve as vehicles for their dissemination of the concepts of gender normativity that continue to inflect thinking and practice of gender to the present day in South Asian society. These attitudes, of course are by no means unique to the cultures of that region. They are, unfortunately, found in almost all patriarchal cultures around the world. This being the case, the South Asian representation of gender should be of interest to scholars of this subject in virtually all areas of the humanities and social sciences. Finally, I will discuss some of the ways in which the issue of the sexuality of the epic’s principal figures is negotiated by the Sanskrit language commentators on the works and the authors of later versions of the epic narratives that are heavily inflected by the Vaiṣṇava bhakti movements in medieval and early modern times.